Setting: As Fulbright grants put it, I was a "cultural ambassador" to India twice, 1994-95 and 2009-10, but what exactly does being a "cultural ambassador" mean?
Scene I: 1994
The air is crisp as I walk to the English Department at the Central University of Hyderabad on the first day of class. Ahead of me are three sari-clad figures--pink, yellow, and cornflower blue--their long braids swaying as they walk. When they hear my footsteps, they turn and smile at this foreigner, me.
--"Oh, you are our new English teacher! We are so excited to have you be our teacher," they say, smiling warmly.
--"Yes, I'm excited too," I smile in return. "I'm Linda. What are your names?
--"I am Malini, and she is...."
When I enter the classroom the students stand up. One gangly young man just finished scrawling "WELCOME, PROFESSOR DITTMAR!" on the blackboard and dashes back to stand with the others. We are off to a friendly start. I introduce myself, review their names, comment on the syllabus (modern American literature) and I tell them about my meeting their three classmates a few minutes earlier.
--"Shalini, Malini, and Rajya are probably not the only ones excited about this class," I say, misplacing the accent on their names though nobody tells me at the time. "But why should you be excited?"
--"Because you'll teach us about America," they say eagerly.
We talk about what they anticipate from me, a "real" American--access to a United States they mainly know through popular music, movies, and TV. They don't know yet that I'm Israeli-American, not a "real" one. I note the difference between "America" and the "U.S." We formulate preliminary questions about the "America" they imagine and the United States portrayed in our literature. I assign a short "getting to know you" paper--me them and them me--via a close reading.
That first paper turns out to be a mess: no focus, no topic, no development. It's more like free-writing, whatever happened to come to mind. "Well," I say on the following day, "you thought I'll teach you about America but actually we'll work on your writing!" We laugh. They know their writing was careless. They also know that I mean business. They don't yet know that the "America" we'll be discussing--with its issues of race, and gender, and social class--shares something with their own India, after all.
Scene II: 1994
Still new to India, I am invited to a three-day conference on American literature hosted by the United States Information Services at a luxury Himalayan resort north of Kolkata. The attendees are Indian scholars, handpicked, many of them established, some "promising." The two or three most senior Indians, the American USIS sponsors, and three American guest presenters (two white scholars and one black poet/novelist) are distinctly privileged. We get spacious individual suites while most of the Indians share ordinary double rooms. At meals the Americans sit apart, though I break ranks with my compatriots and join this or that "Indian" table. They have their own insider conversations. Once in a while I chip in, noting a point of contact--a difficulty we, Americans, also face, issues of race and class for example, or gender. But my presence is not entirely welcome; they don't trust me.
At some point somebody suggests in undertones that USIS is an arm of the CIA. "What are we to make of her?" I imagine them thinking, especially the young leftists. They are all from Kolkata, a communist stronghold where the street fronting the American Consulate has been renamed for Ho Chi Minh! Still, by the time we leave, three days later, I seem to have gained provisional acceptance: friendlier eye-contact, easier chat ... But when I head for the bus assigned to my new Indian friends I am recalled back to the American van.
Scene III: 1995:
--"Let's go haggle for Saris," my student, Arunadha, says to me, adjusting her shiny black braid over the beautiful palu (the ornate edge) of her own emerald sari as she looks disapprovingly at my beige American skirt and pale blue blouse. At this point I've been on campus for some five weeks, still in western attire.
--"Me. errr. Sari?" I mumble in panic at the colonial specter of me masquerading in local "folk" attire.
--"Yes. You really need to wear something nice," Arunadha insists. "We can go on Friday. That way we won't miss class. And haggling is fun," she adds, her black eyes twinkling into mine.
Arundaha is right. All the adult women on campus wear colorful saris, even the sweepers. My American clothes are dull, though I do worry about the colonial implications of her proposed sartorial East/West venture. I remember with horror a joke my father liked telling:
--Eleanor Roosevelt at the UN, complimenting a sari--clad Indian lady: "How lovely you look in your native costume."
--Indian lady to the grey--suited Eleanor: "And how lovely you look in yours."
Still, our day at the market was fun and come Monday morning I appear in class draped in the more sedate of my two new saris. The students cheer and rush me out for photographs. Nobody but I worries about the East/West distinction between "costume" and "clothes." As they see it, I am honoring their culture. Over time, it stops being an "honoring." It's just clothes, like everybody else.
Scene III: 1995 and 2010
I am to read poetry at Hyderabad's Poetry Society, but what should I read for this group of mostly aging, solidly middle class, cultured non-academics brought up on a British curriculum? The usual fare of Keats and Shelley? I assemble a mini-anthology of poetry about African-American women: Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Rita Dove, Nikki Giovanni, and Kate Rushin, concluding with the "laying on of hands" ending of Ntozake Shange's, For Colored Girls ... "That was very different," they tell me later over tea and dainty pastries.
Years later, when I return to Hyderabad, I read poetry by two American war veterans: Bruce Weigle's Song of Napalm (Vietnam) and Brian Turner's Here, Bullet (Iraq). That, too is "very different."
Is "different" a compliment, I wonder, or a sign of discomfort? Is my bringing to this complacent gathering the dissenting voices of black and warrior poets something they wish did not happen? And did my being a white American in some way cushion this transgression?
Scene IV: 2010
I turn down an invitation to be Keynote speaker at a conference on Asian literature in English. "I know next to nothing about this body of literature," I find myself repeating in several emails as I ward off the insistent invitation. (As Fulbright's Distinguished Chair that year I am expected to lecture widely.) We settle on my giving the closing "valedictorian" talk, which I start by reviewing the back and forth around the Keynote invitation: "Why was I invited to be your Valedictorian speaker," I ask, "let alone a Keynote presenter, when I know so little about your subject matter? Shouldn't one of you be standing at this podium? Is it simply because I'm an American? A white American?"
Everybody laughs, especially the younger faculty and graduate students. The cards are finally on the table, which is a good thing as the conference is in Bengal, known for its leftist politics on the ground and postcolonial theorizing in the stratosphere. It's the question I raised obliquely on that first day of class in 1995, the reason I headed for the "Indian bus" in that Himalayan resort, my hesitation to wear a sari, and the purpose behind my choices of poetry for Hyderabad's Poetry Society.
Taken together, these incidents and quite a few others speak to the contradictions inherent in my position in India. They speak to the warm welcome I received but also a certain spuriousness that runs through it. They speak to the distrust as well as deference accorded me and perhaps, sometimes, also to envy and competitiveness: why should she get this special treatment?
Cross-cultural teaching is always a...